Construction Workers Most Likely to Use Opioids and Cocaine, According to Recent Study
One recent study published in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence notes that those in construction jobs are most likely to use pain-relieving drugs. This puts them at high risk for injury and overdose fatality.
Construction workers are more likely than workers in other occupations to use drugs—mainly because their job is taxing and strenuous, according to a study by the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research (CDUHR) at NYU College of Global Public Health.
There is a reason construction, mining, and exertion industries see more worker drug use than other industries. These sectors are among the largest in the United States, and the associated hazards are numerous and serious: falls, injuries from overexertion, being struck by or caught in machinery, and repetitive and strenuous work can lead workers to seek treatment and pain medication through illicit forms like marijuana, opioids, or cocaine, explains a Science Daily article.
“Construction workers are at an increased risk for drug use, which makes them vulnerable to work-related injuries or even overdose deaths,” said Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at NYU College of Global Public Health, deputy director of CDUHR, and the study’s lead author. Other recent studies have shown that construction workers were six to seven times more likely than other workers to die from an opioid overdose.
The study pulled from a massive pool of data, and trends within the construction industry were clear. Researchers looked at a decade of data (2005-2014) from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and analyzed responses from 293,492 participants. Among these participants were 16,610 construction, extraction, and mining workers (which made up 5.6 percent of the sample) to those working in 13 other occupations.
Participants were asked a number of questions related to their employer drug policies and their personal experience with drugs. They were also asked about their use of opioids for non-medical reasons, like taking unprescribed opioids or taking them for the experience of getting high.
The results showed that compared to workers in other professions, construction workers had the highest prevalence of misusing prescription opioids (3.4 percent versus 2 percent) and cocaine use (1.8 percent versus 0.8 percent).
These differences are stark.
And it does not just stop at opioids or cocaine; construction workers proved the second most likely workers to use marijuana, after those in service jobs (12.3 percent versus 12.4 percent, compared with 7.5 percent in non-construction occupations).
Again, researchers recognize the reason why construction workers are reportedly using more pain-relieving drugs: their jobs are strenuous, and injuries are common.
Researchers noted other factors about the construction industry that could be affecting this trend too. Having unstable work or missing work was linked to being more likely to use drugs, and construction workers who were unemployed in the past week or working for three or more employers were more likely to use marijuana or misuse prescription opioids. Also, missing work for one or two days in the past month due to a lack of desire to go to work was linked to an increased misuse of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and prescription opioids. Researchers say missing more days—like three to five—of work because of illness or injury can put a person at nearly double the odds of opioid misuse.
The employee is not the only part of the equation, however. Employers and workplace drug policies tend to be more “protective” against marijuana use than the use of cocaine or misuse of prescription opioids. There are a handful of factors that are associated with lower odds of marijuana use like workplace alcohol testing, drug testing during the hiring process, random drug testing, and working for an employer that fires employees with a positive drug test.
Researchers note the potential disadvantages of drug testing employees, however. Many drug tests do not distinguish between recreational and medical use, and many tests do not account for other potentially harmful substances like opioid or cocaine misuse.
“In the high-risk settings of construction work, where safely handling hazardous equipment is critical for reducing harms for workers, drug testing and other workplace substance use policies may play a role in protecting workers. However, not all marijuana and opioid use is problematic and drug testing cannot distinguish recreational use from medical use. Thus, strict workplace drug policies also have the potential to harm companies and reduce employment opportunities for workers,” said Ompad. “Coupled with reports of high overdose mortality among construction workers, our findings suggest that prevention and harm reduction programming is needed to prevent drug-related risks and mortality among this population.”
Construction workers are not only at a higher risk of workplace injury and illness: they face high risks of drug misuse and overdose. Major changes and advancements in the industry are needed to address these silent hazards that go beyond simple drug testing and workplace drug policies, not only for employee safety, but also as an employer responsibility.